The Director Is Rarely a She

A recent retrospective of woman-directed films at the Brooklyn Academy of Music prompted the usual expressions of outrage at the scarcity of woman directors. Despite increases during the 80′s, over the last decade women have been responsible for less than 10 percent of major releases, and in independent films the statistics are equally dismal.

So why are there so few woman directors? The question is posed so often and predictably, with its implied assumption-that women should be directing films in the same proportion as men; or at the same ratio as they are entering law and medicine-that maybe it’s time to reconsider the question. Or change the setting, e.g. Why are there so few woman dictators? Why are there so few woman boozer-bully-braggart poker players? Number-crunchers? Why are there so few women with trophy husbands to show off to other women? So few woman generals? Presidents? Terrorists? All vocations that one might link with the strut and swagger and high stakes of directing, American style.

We might acknowledge that, as it’s perceived and practiced in this country, there is something about directing (generalizing, presidenting, terrorizing) that is inimical to women. And maybe we’re even a little relieved that this is so. If women become ruthless authority figures, who will modify the blood lust in our society?

As I watched President Clinton struggling to explain the NATO air attack on Serbia, I tried to imagine Hillary Rodham Clinton or Elizabeth Dole performing the job, or even more seasoned politicians like Christine Todd Whitman or Nancy Kassebaum Baker. It wasn’t that Mr. Clinton had managed the thing brilliantly or with manly dispatch. But here was a situation in which a man, however weak in foreign policy or strategic thinking, was essential just for being a man.

Aggressive and authoritative women as heads of state have either been queen by divine succession or politicians (Margaret Thatcher, Eva Perón) who overcompensated for being women. Moreover, in the first two weeks of talking-head symposiums, Madeleine Albright was rarely to be seen. Instead it fell to not-quite-dead white males, former secretaries of state and defense, to explain why this was a cause worth sending American troops in to fight and die for. A look at President Milosevic tells us that in a world of trigger-happy butchers and staring-match demagogues a certain old-fashioned virility tempered by flexibility is required.

In the last 20 years’ struggle for parity, women have gone back and forth on the equality-difference issue, some days insisting that men and women are basically the same, at other times emphasizing (or resigning ourselves to) their irreconcilable differences. That’s as it should be. In most of life, there’s an overlapping of interests, more common drive than has been allowed for in gender stereotypes. But at the biological-physical extremes-childbearing for women, war for men-we come up against the physical realities of gender differences that are enmeshed, chicken-and-egg-style, in temperamental differences.

Take such gender-bending film exercises as Junior and G.I. Jane . The spectacle of Arnold Schwarzenegger giving birth to a fine baby boy or Demi Moore pumping iron to become a Navy Seal were more creepy than cute. Creating a war so Demi could show her stuff was silly, I admit, yet the excessive abuse heaped on that movie went beyond esthetic considerations and suggested deep discomfort with what a woman, even one not as buff and determined as Demi, would have to do to become a military machine. As Anne Bancroft’s character in the film, a female Senator, asked, are we ready to see women come home in body bags?

In this country, moviemaking, whether Hollywood or “indie,” proves to have more in common with war than culture. The making of movies, from blockbuster Hollywood to the renegade fringe, is more of a man’s world than it ever was. At least the old moguls looked up to women and enshrined the idea of woman in the golden girls they turned into stars and whom the studio system put on an equal financial footing. But then came a “liberating” wave of hippie auteurs who arrived in the 60′s and 70′s to make new and different kinds of films, aiming to get rid of tired conventions and star vehicles like The Sound of Music and the Doris Day-Rock Hudson movies. They did for a while, but at what price, and with what underlying hypocrisy?

If they didn’t want stars, it was because they wanted to be stars themselves, and in the films they made as well as their private lives, they dissed women into the realm of the disappeared. Like marauding armies, the new long-haired directors and sandal-wearing producers took women captive, and treated them like slaves and booty. And the women, who thought hanging out stoned and having nonstop sex with Hollywood’s new hipsters was liberation enough, cooked and complied.

Peter Biskind’s 1998 book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls , paints a picture of newly crowned auteurs and wannabes so busy trying to suck up to or impress each other that women were only a byproduct of the game-part of the scene, the perks and amenities, like drugs and the new Mercedes, while the men were turned on by other men, as Robert Towne in his weird, parasitic relationship with Warren Beatty. Caught between contempt for establishment values and a hunger for the brass ring, they wanted to make dropout films but succeed with all the perks and status of A-list celebrities.

The general feeling about producer Bert Schneider, whose role model was Huey Newton, was that “if you wanted to win a game of hardball with [him], you had to have balls of steel.” Robert Altman and the rest “had their eye on the prize.” Martin Scorsese admitted going to parties for opportunistic reasons: “I had my own agenda. I was obsessive, relentless, ruthless.” And Paul Schrader: “No one succeeds in film if he’s not hustling. The first thing you think of when you wake up in the morning, is, Who can I hustle? and the last thing you think of before you go to bed is, Who can I hustle?”

Today’s independents are no less driven and focused on the prize. Can women play this game? Can we max out our parents’ credit card, then hit up friends for money? And when we do all that, blast through the niceties of civilization, are we going to make films about women, in love or in trouble, or about sexy, glamorous, nasty, testosterone-driven men?

Even in the new mini-trend of movies about the brutishness of men, there’s a kind of sneaky, macho pride. All that raw anger, all that self-destructiveness-awesome! Drawn into a Darwinian arena of clashing egos and inevitable casualties, the necessity for drawing blood becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, an alibi, war by another name.

But then, politics and war are not just about leading soldiers into battle but getting down in the trenches, doing the dirty work. Like moviemaking these days, politics is the art of the possible, not a refuge for idealists but the place where compromises are offered, deals are made. It’s about plugging holes, getting the potholes fixed, courting the opposition and cornering allies, getting down on your hands and knees and begging for money, taking gut-wrenching rejections over and over again and coming back for more.